Castlebar’s Cafe Rua puts Mayo’s best on a plate

This brother and sister team proves that good food at the right price will attract the hoards

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Cafe Rua

  • Proprietor: Aran and Colleen McMahon
  • 2-4 New Antrim Street, Castlebar, Co. Mayo
  • (094) 9023376
  • Irish

It’s hard to spot any Enda halo around Castlebar on a ceaselessly wet Friday. The town seems defeated. A taxi driver in the Taoiseach’s stamping ground recalls last summer fondly: “It was on a Wednesday.”

Rain-lashed Castlebar needs that kind of humour and a place like Cafe Rua, where warmth, conversation and food smells embrace you when you enter.

I’m with Clodagh Doyle, a curator at the National Museum of Country Life in nearby Turlough Park. We’ve been looking at cooking utensils in the hearth and home section. The tools date from when the cook had to fetch the water to boil her potatoes. She would pound them with a potato pounder, sometimes so hard that the cast-iron pot left a crater in the dirt floor: the original pothole.

The brilliant thing about Rua is the lunch crowd in this old-fashioned cafe. The brother and sister team (Aran and Colleen McMahon), who took over from their mother, Ann, have opened a second, more modern deli, on Spencer Street. There it’s all sludge-grey exterior, upstairs cafe and take-home goodies.

In the original russet-red painted cafe on New Antrim Street it’s a homelier space. Kitchen tables and chairs are fitted and there’s a mix of gilt mirrors. The youngest customer is asleep in his car seat beside a large round table peopled by women of his granny’s generation.

We nab two chairs at this table and swap to a bigger solo table as the lunchtime rush eases.

And it’s this lunchtime cram that puts the lie to the claim that you can’t do terrific, well-sourced food outside the throng of a big city. The menu is on a large chalkboard and food comes to the table. I start with a large bowl of potato and spinach soup to take the chill off.

The €10 Mayo Mezze plate isn’t a load of olives and pitta covered in mayonnaise but a selection of lovely home-made or home-grown things on a wooden platter. It comes with a glass of unfizzy house-made lemonade, a lemon cake in liquid form.

There’s a fluffy light chicken-liver pâté, a sunny-yolked hard-boiled egg halved and served with a basil and lemon mayo and some coriander-and-mustard-seed chutney. Dark brown fresh bread is topped with two triangles of Cuinneog butter, where one would have been plenty. There’s hard nutty Carrowholly cheese from Westport, pickled beetroot, sweet grated carrot and a tangle of leaves topped with viola flowers with flavours from aniseed to mustard to something that looks like parsley but turns out to be celery-sweet lovage. There’s chutney, there are toasted seeds. It’s all wonderful.

Clodagh’s warm goats’ cheese salad has a few of the same ingredients and a thick disc of great goats’ cheese topped with a sweet nutty crust of seeds and two wedges of garlic bread.

Desserts are still made by Ann McMahon and are old-school good. A slice of rhubarb tart with cream is huge with the right amount of bite in the pink chunks of rhubarb, buttery home-made pastry, and a perfect balance of tartness and sweetness while Clodagh’s pear and blueberry Bakewell slice is a lovely piece of baking.

Later I’ll trudge through the rain to buy a pot of wild garlic pesto in the Spencer Street deli. Clodagh tells me it’s often a Friday night supper in their house: a loaf of home-made bread and a pot of this magical stuff.

None of the food in Rua is expensive. You don’t pack out a cafe in a rural town on a wet Friday by charging through the nose. It costs the same as the food in cafes where a white van delivers pre-cut chips, drums of stock powder and buckets of mayonnaise.

By making its food from scratch and putting the best that Mayo has to offer on plates that everyone is happy to eat, Rua shows that when you do things properly they will beat a path to your door.